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Demise of theater plan is a relief

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Now that Clear Channel is out of the picture, downtown Durham activists see the perfect opportunity for the city to go back to square one and look critically at whether the city should build a theater downtown. "We've always felt that the city needed to be saved from its own bad project," says Alex Kostelink, a downtown Durham resident and member of the Artists & Business Coalition of Downtown, a group that has organized opposition to the events center. "It was going to be shaky and lose money. I think the city will be glad later that it fell through."

The opportunity for reexamination arose Monday, when San Antonio-based entertainment conglomerate Clear Channel sent a letter to Alan DeLisle, the city's director of economic development, saying they would not remain involved in the 2,800-seat events center project. The letter said that the company is reworking its "strategic plan" and has decided that it "can't commit to a project like this under the conditions the City of Durham proposes." The city has been saying in recent weeks that it would ask Clear Channel to carry the risk of financial loss involved in running the theater and pay the city a portion of the profits.

City officials unveiled a revised plan for the events center earlier this month after a trip to Houston to visit another Clear Channel venue of comparable size. The revised plan proposed for the site of the city's former bus garage, next to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, shrank the venue from its original size (4,000 seats) and price tag ($42 million). But ABCD member Josh Parker, who accompanied city officials on the trip, said last week that he believed the plan still did not adequately suit the city's needs.

Clear Channel's involvement as the preferred operator was part of what drove musicians and artists to oppose the plan. But it wasn't their only objection. "We've been saying for a long time, hey slow down, let's look at whether this is what we want," says Maria Francesca Braganza, also of ABCD. "We're going to still try and encourage and work with the city and say, let's go back and really evaluate this from the ground up--Do we need it? Is it the right place?"

City officials face a self-imposed October deadline to decide on a development plan. Subsequent deadlines affect the options on city owned land, which would revert to Capitol Broadcasting, developer of the American Tobacco complex next door, and money being collected from the hotel-motel tax imposed by the state legislature. But the city could ask a legislative delegation to ask for more time to consider a proposal.

Braganza says she hopes that's what the city will do. "The number one thing I don't want to see happen is to rush right into, let's look at the next operator, let's have House of Blues come in. I'd like the city to get the message that the folks who have opposed this theater project want to slow it down, want to be involved in the process, want to have an open discussion between the city and citizens not based on a pre-exiting plan, and want to talk about what Durham really needs."

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